Jackhammers began pounding away this week in the street opposite Mollie Stone's, and on Monday afternoon, Mayor Nancy Shepherd and other city dignitaries will break out the ceremonial shovels to officially kick-off the project, which will create significant disruptions through its planned completion at the end of the year.
It is the first major renovation of a commercial district streetscape since a similar project downtown more than 15 years ago, and the city has a lot riding on its successful implementation. Such projects are notoriously unwelcomed by merchants during the construction phase, as they justly fear customers will go elsewhere to avoid the area's construction activity.
The city is attempting to mitigate the impacts by limiting construction to one block and one side of the street at a time, creating some replacement street parking, promising lots of signage and marketing support, and by instituting a lunchtime shuttle designed to bring people to the area for lunch from the Stanford Research Park (and without their cars.)
These efforts are commendable, but the biggest test may be whether the city has the will and ability to keep the project on schedule and to communicate effectively with the businesses in the California Avenue district as it proceeds. As well-intentioned as the Public Works Department and its contractors may be, they are not skilled at public relations.
We hope and trust that Claudia Keith, the city's new communications director, has been tasked with implementing an outreach plan that leaves no merchant or business owner in the area able to claim they don't know what's going on and when disruptions will affect their block. That said, there has been little in the way of direct communications with stores and offices in the business district. The Weekly, which is located just a block off California Avenue, hasn't received any project updates or guidance about the schedule for street disruptions.
The California Avenue project has been met with apprehension by some and great enthusiasm by others ever since it developed momentum and funding some four years ago.
While merchants, property owners and nearby residents had sharp differences over whether to reconfigure the traffic lanes from four to two, there was never a shred of data suggesting that eliminating a lane in each direction on this short stretch would have any major impact on traffic congestion.
But a few upset merchants challenged the approval process in court, resulting in delays that contributed to increases in costs due to the improving economy and the resulting rising costs of construction.
One major reason for cost increases has been the wise addition of the full replacement of the main waterline running down the street, which the city says dates back to the 1940s and would have had to be done soon regardless. The project begins with the waterline replacement, and everyone should understand that this work, while being wrapped into the other improvements for efficiency sake, was unavoidable.
As concerning as the construction project is for the merchants of California Avenue, the long-term evolution of the business district should be the greater worry.
While improvements to the sidewalks, street furniture and landscaping will all make the street more welcoming and attractive, and therefore beneficial to both businesses and shoppers, when combined with new development in the area they are putting upward pressure on rents, tempting longtime owners to cash out or redevelop, and increasing the demand for parking.
Much of the charm of California Avenue is its eclectic collection of businesses, almost all independent and locally owned, that actually serve the neighborhood and city residents, in addition to employees in the area.
Preserving these qualities will be much more important and much more difficult than successfully getting through nine months of construction.